In Atlanta test-cheating scandal, a case for 'good apples'

Indictments of 35 Atlanta educators in a test-cheating scandal may be shocking. But preventing such scandals requires a refocus on tapping the conscience of public servants to choose honesty.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
In this 2011 photo, outgoing school superintendent Beverly Hall (c.), arrives for her last school board meeting at the Atlanta Public Schools headquarters. Dr. Hall and nearly three dozen administrators, teachers, principals and other educators were indicted March 29, 2013, in one of the nation's largest cheating scandals.

A jury in Georgia indicted 35 Atlanta educators on Friday in what has been called the largest test-cheating scandal in American public schools.

Those charged “conspired to either cheat, conceal cheating, or retaliate against whistle-blowers” in order to boost the test scores of students – but with the aim to benefit themselves, prosecutors said.

The indictments come two years after state investigators revealed that 178 administrators and staffers – including 38 principals – were involved in a scandal spread across dozens of schools in Atlanta from at least 2005 to 2010. The charges even include a former superintendent, Beverly Hall, who had been designated National Superintendent of the Year in 2009.

While the scope and seriousness of the test cheating is shocking, the indictment helps reinforce the fact that plenty of school personnel in Atlanta were willing to be whistle-blowers or informants. They either stood up to pressure from superiors and took a stand for honesty, or eventually came clean about their own complicity.

“I wanted to clear my conscience,” Jackie Parks, a former third-grade teacher at Venetian Hills Elementary School, told The New York Times. She'd agreed to wear a wire for investigators in order to record fellow teachers as they secretly erased wrong answers on state-required tests and changed them to correct ones.

Many school districts in the United States have recently discovered teachers or principals altering test scores to create a better impression of their schools or to earn more money. This has forced changes in testing procedures and even cast doubt on the wisdom of high-stakes testing as a tool of holding public education more accountable for what students actually learn.

Yet no matter the pressure on schools to perform, there is no excuse for cheating.

Schools should certainly run a “tight ship” against unethical behavior and be aware of pressures on educators. Most of all, however, they must encourage honesty and trust in teachers and administrators.

It can be difficult to screen for “bad apples” while also reinforcing “good apples.” Yet trust is a two-way street, and many organizations find that being more trustful of employees helps them to be trustworthy.

Studies of dishonesty by behavioral economist Dan Ariely find that a fear of getting caught does little to prevent deception. Instead, simply reminding workers of their moral obligations or the consequences of their acts can increase the level of honesty. It is not that people are amoral like blank slates and must be manipulated to be bad or good. Rather with small reminders, they choose good.

Schools are already loaded with “good apples.” In a 2005 study of Chicago elementary schools, only 3 to 6 percent of classrooms had signs of teachers or administrators altering student exams. The study also found that teachers or schools can make extraordinary gains in test scores without any indication of cheating.

As Harvard University management expert Mark Moore writes: a “trusting model embodying a more direct appeal to moral principles might actually do a better job of evoking high-minded motives for action and of suppressing low-minded ones.”

Those in public service, such as teachers, and especially those who work with children, should be the most inclined to be honest. This is what makes the Atlanta scandal so startling. The city’s schools have already made reforms with a focus on honesty in testing and a better workplace ethos of sharing a common mission.

Tapping into a person’s conscience is far better than trying to trap a person’s deceit.

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